I’d written earlier about discovering the amazing ingenuity of weaver ants when we happened to see a leaf seemingly defy all gravity: curled up, slimmed up and glued to its neighbours to form a neat little pod. Who could have done such a thing? Surely an ant is too weak and too small. This time I caught the buggers in action – real National Geographic stuff.
This is a video I filmed of weaver ants in action – slowly and precisely lifting a leaf and curling it in to position to make an inner chamber of the nest. Set to Colonel Bogey’s March of course (apologies for the slightly blurry start and set ur resolution high):
Watch how this one ant starts off pulling the tip of the leaf all by himself and just when he’s got it – urgh…DOH! it slips through his tiny ant fingers and he has to start all over again. I guess despite their prowess for structural engineering, weaver ants make mistakes too.But just as he lets the tip of the leaf go and it looks like he’s going to be catapulted in to the universe by the force of the uncoiling leaf, his ant comrades comes to the rescue, grabbing hold of his waist and legs. Co-operation in the animal world caught on camera.
According to the National Geographic website ‘They release more pheromones into the air to broadcast signals quickly and widely.’ This is social networking, weaver ant style.
They get back to work curling the leaf to form an inner chamber when a car whizzes by and ‘Wheeeeeeeeeeee’ the leaves on the trees start flapping and it looks like this whole ant nest building operation is about the collapse. Amazingly they hang on for dear life and get back to work. Heave ho! As if that wasn’t enough action, one lone ranger stoically takes hold of the edge of the leaf and holds on to it, even through a stiff breeze, then a light breeze, while the other ants make some kind of calculations, possibly applying their sticky saliva to cement the edges, relaying coded information as they pass each other and their antennae touch lightly.
This photograph gives you an idea of why they are trying to curl the leaf in the video:
The NG website describes how the ants begin their nest making. ” A single worker stands on a leaf and reaches to grasp the edge of another leaf nearby. If the span is too great, a second worker climbs over the first, and the bottom ant grasps the newcomer by its wire-thin waist and holds it out closer to the goal. Still not enough? A third ant clambers over the first two and is lifted out farther yet. Ant by ant, a living chain grows into thin air like the arm of a construction crane.’
Here’s a picture of that ‘ant crane’
As evening comes on and the humidity rises, more workers arrive from nearby nests. They’re carrying larvae that are about to enter the pupal stage and metamorphose into adults. These larvae do their share of the work. The larger ants tap the larvae heads and a sticky silk saliva is secreted which sticks the leaves together. The Queen ant resides inside one of the many chambers of the nest and produces eggs that hatch into larvae some of which become reproductive males and females.
Here’s a picture of that sticky saliva and the ants pulling the tip of the leaf in unison:
This is what the final nest looks like:
‘Ants serve as models in all kinds of studies aimed at figuring out how big, complex jobs get done with small parts and a minimum of instructions. Urban planners examine the organization of ant societies. Mathematicians draw upon analyses of ant behaviour to devise parallel computing formulas (where multiple problems are solved simultaneously).’
We were still unable to believe that these ants that weigh close to nothing could defy gravity and bend a leaf. ‘Entomologist Mark Moffett tries to explain how weaver ants operate in an Einsteinian universe where space bends and warps. “Mentally shrink yourself to ant size and set out walking on a leaf. It’s a two-dimensional plane, except that it curves and twists and after a while suddenly falls off into thin air. No matter, you just climb over the edge and keep walking on the underside, then wend your way down a stem to another curling green surface.”
“Weaver ants weigh so little, they’re scarcely affected by gravity,” Moffett says. “The rocking of branches in the wind is a stronger force to them, so they often don’t know which way is down. But if an ant wants to go from one tree to the next, there’s a huge gap relative to its size. It might have to travel all the way to the ground, back up again, and then out on another branch. What the weaver ant often does, though, is get a bunch of buddies together to form an air bridge and cross directly to the other side.”
I like Moffett’s “Ants in Star Wars hyperspace theory, short-circuiting the usual rules of time and gravity.” People often dissappoint you: friends lose touch, colleagues don’t commit, lovers drift apart, governments fail you. But in the ant world they are pre-programmed to work together, it’s the only way they can survive. Whenever you lose faith in the world around, just look to the animal world for the marvelous wonders of nature and know that ants are way smarter than we’ll ever be.